Surprising Departure at SUNY

March 8, 2007

John R. Ryan has been popular with professors, administrators and legislators in his two years as chancellor of the State University of New York, winning substantial budget increases and generally calming the waters after his less popular predecessor was ousted when he lost favor with the then-governor. So it came as a shock to many in Albany and on SUNY's 64 campuses when Ryan announced suddenly on Wednesday that he was quitting to become president of the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit group that runs training programs for leaders in the public and private sectors.

Ryan's statement praised SUNY's progress and its programs, and his aides talked about how he had made a difficult decision after an organization he cared about made him a great offer. But there was widespread speculation among SUNY-watchers that the departure could be the first of other moves that might lead to significant changes for the system.

New York's new Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, signaled immediately on Wednesday that he expects his office to be involved in the search, which will at least officially be run by SUNY's board, all of whose members were appointed by former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican. And several sources in close contact with the departing chancellor said that the system missed a chance to keep him for a longer time when the SUNY board did not move ahead last year as Ryan sought a new contract.

A retired vice admiral of the U.S. Navy, Ryan entered college administration as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. After leaving that position in 2002, he served as president of SUNY's Maritime College and interim president of SUNY-Albany before he was named acting system chancellor in 2005, winning the post on a permanent basis later that year. Ryan took over from Robert L. King, a close ally of Pataki, who was seen by many academics as not suitably academic for the job and who resigned after a falling out with the then-governor.

From the time of his appointment, Ryan won points with many at SUNY for a style that was straightforward, but not confrontational, and for having the political dexterity to push good budgets through a Legislature in which one house is controlled by Democrats and the other by Republicans.

Ryan was hired as chancellor as Pataki was preparing to leave office -- a delicate time since Spitzer (who was overwhelmingly favored in last year's election) was preparing to reshape the SUNY board. (The new governor will get his first shot at appointments later this year, as terms of sitting trustees start to expire. But several sources said that Spitzer is so anxious to get his own people on the board that he has asked some SUNY board members to quit, although they have rebuffed him.)

In this environment, Ryan was apparently seeking job security. The Albany Business Review reported last year that Ryan, who served at the pleasure of his board, sought a four- or five-year contract. While there are different theories in Albany -- and fingers pointing in different directions -- about what transpired, several said that he was frustrated by the response. He never got the contract.

And while Ryan was winning praise for managing the system and building legislative support for budgets, longstanding concerns about SUNY have reportedly been receiving new attention in the governor's office. When he proposed his first budget as governor this year, Spitzer said he would create a Commission on Public Higher Education to examine both SUNY and the City University of New York, focusing on promoting a "rational" tuition policy, setting benchmarks for institutions, and helping universities "go from being good to being great."

Officials in the governor's office have reportedly been asking questions about SUNY's structure, and whether it is logical to have a single board oversee 64 campuses, which include community colleges, regional four-year institutions, highly specialized institutions, and research universities. Others have raised questions about whether having too many common policies across SUNY may hinder the development of the research universities, which is a top interest of the governor's. While Spitzer announced his plan to create the commission, he hasn't appointed members, so any recommendations are a ways off -- but Ryan's departure leaves SUNY without a strong leader just as the panel will get organized.

Spitzer's press secretary told the Associated Press Wednesday that the governor's education office would "work closely" with the SUNY board on the search.

In a sign of Ryan's effectiveness, both SUNY administrators and faculty leaders used similar words to praise him and what he had accomplished. John Simpson, the president of SUNY-Buffalo, said he was "very effective" with the legislature and the campuses and that the budgets he won "will advance a real academic agenda."

William E. Scheuerman, president of the United University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers unit that represents faculty members at SUNY, said that Ryan had pushed hard for programs to improve the diversity of the SUNY system, and that he worked closely with the union on winning budget increases.

"He was a breath of fresh air -- he was a political independent. He knew how to play both political parties, and he was an advocate for the university and he was committed to making SUNY a great university," Scheuerman said. "This is a real loss to the university."

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